On March 2, 2016, I had a lumpectomy to remove 2 suspicious lesions in my right breast. I remember the surgeon had a red nose that morning, like she’d been crying or had a cold. And I remember waking up and hearing that she got all of it – those worrisome lesions were gone. The procedure was outpatient, and within a day or so I was back to work as a fundraising professional for a cause I loved. About two and a half weeks later I noticed that the incision on my chest was weeping fluid. I called the nurse at the surgeon’s office and was told that an antibacterial ointment would be fine to apply to the wound, and to watch for any change. There was no change that I could see, but a few days later I began to suddenly feel extremely ill at a neighbor’s cocktail party after work. I was ridiculously thirsty and my back began to feel as if I was in labor (I wasn’t pregnant). After drinking glass after glass of water I felt nauseated and thought I might have a stomach virus or the flu so walked the half a block to my house. I began shivering uncontrollably as I walked in the front door and told my husband I needed to lay down and couldn’t help with dinner.
I called the doctor’s office after hours and had the doctor on-call paged. I was told to call back if my temperature rose above 102 or if anything else changed, and to call in the morning to see a doctor about the issue. My temperature remained at 102 all night, as my shivering continued, teeth chattering as I fell in and out of sleep. I remember opening my eyes and feeling as if they were covered in a film or glaze the next morning. My entire body hurt – like a painful sunburn on the inside of my skin and it was everything I had to fight to get up, to walk, to do anything. And the back pain… I dutifully called the doctor’s office the minute they opened and was told that there were no doctors in that morning, and to go straight to the ER. I was annoyed to have to go to the ER, because I’d done as the doctor had said and called first thing in the morning. It was a work day, so I threw on some work clothes, got in my car, and drove to the ER. I thought I’d stop in to the ER, they’d give me a shot or something and I’d then head in to the office. Boy, was I wrong.
The attendants at the ER desk whisked me into triage and then quickly into the back to be assessed by the medical team. I must have looked awful like I felt. A high school friend, now a nurse, was the first person I saw in that treatment room. She quickly got an IV in, then a doctor walked in and I heard the word “sepsis” – and then things get blurry.
I remember needles being stuck into my healing wound, into my breast, and the team trying to aspirate something with no luck. They were looking for the source of infection. My kidneys were failing and my heart was erratic. I had emergency surgery the next morning and the right breast was debrided. A pocket of infection was found deep in the breast and so a wide margin was removed along with the infection. The wound was left open with a drain. I kept asking about my back pain.
There were IVs in both arms, leg compression bands on both legs, monitors attached to my chest, back, and hand. I was given blood thinner shots every three hours in my abdomen, and checked for signs of infection all over my body regularly. Any urine I produced was screened by a nurse, and I was bleeding at the time. Looking back I’m not sure if I was menstruating or if it was my first episode of gross hematuria, urinating blood due to kidney malfunction. My veins were so weak it took 9 attempts to complete one of my regular IV changes. The heart monitor would ding incessantly and every time I would cry, or laugh, a nurse would run in and tell me and any visitors to calm down.
One afternoon, after a nurse left my room I saw something amazing – a tunnel of what looked like angelic warriors clad in pure platinum began to spin above my head. And then a ring of pure white warrior angels flew into formation spinning in the opposite direction. It was one of the most profoundly beautiful things I’ve ever seen besides the birth of each of my children. I felt a choice had to be made and saw my children’s faces, and then felt a pull through my body toward the ground. And the tunnel slowly faded.
The breast wound was cleaned and dressed twice a day at first and I remember being so relieved when the drain was removed. I was nauseated and had no energy, and really struggled to walk with assistance to the door of my room on my first attempt up. My husband would help me on my regular “field trips” as far as I could make it down the hall. When I was released from the hospital the sun was so bright – I remember looking away from it and down at my legs and feeling horrified at the look of my skin. The muscles in my calves were gone and my skin was pasty white and so wrinkled.
My husband and my dad helped me wash my hair for the first time once I was back at home. My husband became my wound nurse – once my home health care nurses graduated me out of their care my husband cleaned the open would and bandaged it meticulously each time. The wound was open for the entire summer, slowly healing. My body was so depleted after sepsis, I was severely anemic, my kidneys continued to fight through infection after infection, and I was utterly exhausted. Things hurt that never had before – my joints ached. Every step was like a dagger cutting into my feet. When I had a follow up with the surgeon who performed the original lumpectomy, I asked her why I was still so tired. She told me I should just get a cup of coffee and get on with my life.
I was left with anemia and colitis, and learned through my sepsis experience that I have chronic kidney disease. Physical therapy helped build some of the strength I lost. I couldn’t watch TV or listen to the radio for quite a while once I was at home. The noise and chaos would put me over the edge. I had night sweats and nightmares for months. My body reacted poorly to so many things inside and out after sepsis – new antibiotics, food, my wedding ring and my memory – it’s terrible now. There are so many things I’ve forgotten. It felt like I had to learn to speak again – I couldn’t look someone in the eye and talk for months after sepsis. I played word games on my phone and read as much as I could stand just to find the words again. It was painful and embarrassing. The pain in my joints continues, and I’ve noticed cold days are the worst.
Through it all, I’m thankful for my incredible husband and my family, my friends who knew to “do” instead of asking if they “could do” anything – and my new friend Audrey Leishman. As I searched for answers to the sepsis riddle after release from the hospital I stumbled across Audrey’s story. That connection has helped me on my darkest days, and now being able to help others impacted by sepsis through the Begin Again Foundation makes all of the pain bearable.
- April Strickland, Sepsis Survivor and Begin Again Foundation Board Member